As you grumble about your lost hour of sleep this weekend, just remember: Don’t blame Benjamin Franklin. Despite legend, the nerdiest Founding Father did not invent daylight saving time. (He did, however, suggest cities wake residents earlier on summer mornings by the sound of cannon fire, so perhaps it’s best he didn’t get his way.)
No, the reason you may have an extra cup of coffee Sunday is World War I. And golf.
Changing clocks in the summer was first proposed around the turn of the 20th century by two guys who came up with it separately from one another, though for the same reason. New Zealander George Hudson and Englishman William Willett both wanted more time after work in the summer for their sunlight-required pastimes — in Willett’s case, hitting the links, and in Hudson’s, collecting bugs. And, really, why let time itself keep you from your hobbies?
Neither man’s proposals gained much traction, however, until the outbreak of World War I. The Germans were the first to do it, on April 30, 1916, as a way to save on coal-powered lighting in factories. British politicians moved to follow suit two days later and had set their clocks forward by the end of May. Most other European countries weren’t far behind.
Time was a little slower to change in the United States, which did not join the war until 1917. Stockbrokers and manufacturers made a flurry of patriotic posters in support of daylight saving time. But railroad companies, afraid that confusion around the time change could cause a deadly crash, were adamantly against it. So were farmers, who worked by the sun anyway and did not want interactions with the clock-keeping world to get screwy.
“If you’re a farmer, you can’t just go work an hour early, because you need the sunlight to see what you’re doing, especially in those days,” says David Prerau, author of “Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time.” This was especially hard on dairy farmers, who would have to start milking cows in the dark to meet train schedules for delivery.
“Plus, the sun, beside giving light, it gives heat, and it drives off the dew on a lot of the things that have to be harvested. And you can’t harvest things when they’re wet,” Prerau says.
The stockbrokers won; a bill passed Congress, and President Woodrow Wilson signed it. But the first nationwide time change suffered from some seriously unfortunate scheduling. It was March 31, 1918 — Easter Sunday. Newspapers published instructions on how and when to set clocks forward, and churches posted signs out front warning parishioners.
The Chicago Tribune called it “a lie that will benefit you and your country,” which is a pretty weird way to put it.
At 2 a.m., a reception at Madison Square Garden marked the occasion, and at the U.S. Capitol, a few senators stayed awake with the sergeant-at-arms to reset the Ohio Clock.
The next day, things went surprisingly smoothly. “Some churchgoers were an hour late, but no baseball games were called on account of darkness,” reported the New York Times. “Those looking to the sky at nightfall expecting to see a miracle were disappointed.”
By the next year, the war had ended, and many thought daylight saving time should end with it, Prerau says. Lawmakers representing farmers introduced nearly two dozen bills to repeal it; one Mississippi congressman urged “Repeal the law and have the clocks proclaim God’s time and tell the truth!” A New Jersey congressman who supported it told people to think of the veterans coming home from the war, “Are they not deserving of the extra hour of recreation?”
A repeal sailed through the House, cleared the Senate and landed on Wilson’s desk. He vetoed it, saying it could cause an economic downturn.
A vote to override the president’s veto failed, but haters were unbowed. They passed another repeal bill, which the president vetoed again. But this time, they were better prepared, getting the two-thirds majority in the House and Senate needed to override the president. (All of this happened in a month; Congress used to be productive!) Daylight saving time was dead.
So if they got rid of it, why are you late to brunch now?
Well, it never went away entirely. Cities like New York and Pittsburgh passed their own daylight saving time laws, and it was brought back nationally for a little while during World War II. As The Post’s Michael S. Rosenwald has written, all the time laws among cities and states got so messed up that in Iowa, there were 23 different daylight saving dates, depending on what town you were in. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson finally smoothed it out, making daylight saving time the law of the land.
The result? You may be tired Sunday morning, but in the evening you will have an extra hour to collect bugs.
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